A tip for acoustic folk artists: if you wish to eclipse the expectations that envelope your one man and his guitar setup, then be sure to occasionally brandish the more unorthodox instruments: the sitar, the concertina, or in the case of this review’s artist's past, a bouzouki.
Hailing from the Highlands, James Yorkston ends his four year album gap after 2008’s When the Haar Rolls In to roll out a new backing band, filled with members of electronica duo Lamb and The Cinematic Orchestra, serving us song writing that mixes trepid and tall tales with an abundance of references, all in a veritable feast. It’s not wholly unique, but it occupies the best of familiar territory.
With its abrupt beginning, the first track “Catch” uses its namesake to get you off your guard, as does Yorkston’s singularly terrific voice and its ability to absorb a soothing rhythm. Packed in are musings of Fitzgerald, unlikely relationships and religion (the latter of which, due to his Catholic upbringing, are repeated throughout the album), all sewed together by song-stealing violin playing.
The undeniable benefits of his new music buddies come to light in tracks “Kath with Rhodes”, with its low electronic wails and spotlighted backing vocalist Kathryn Williams, the eerie string work in “This Line Says” and the full on percussion of album finale “I Can Take All This”. Though undeniably talented and capable of making great music, James has never really had the same individuality in his voice possessed by Dallas Green or even Bob Dylan, so whilst the presence of new players in these pieces may strike long time fans as unfamiliar, they’re certainly not unwelcome.
If anything they feel like an attempt to combat the oft lingering flaw in Yorkston’s songs, namely that they don’t linger much at all. Certain numbers do well in remedying this with a flurrying fusion of lyrics and ensemble instrumentation, such as fast-track “Border Song”. Meanwhile “The Fire & The Flames”, bearing an almost impeccable resemblance to The Swell Season including its Glen Hansard-esque vocal tones, squanders its beautiful lyrics “philosophy is love for regrets of loving you my dear” and the true pain James felt over his daughter’s illness by being generally forgettable, despite how genuinely moving it is.
It goes without saying that with every good folk album, if you aren't buyin the words, yours are worth none. Also being a genre that demands confession and openness, the adult complexities wrought throughout are understandable, but never tiring. Considering one of his earliest singles “Woozy with Cider” was traditional folk down to the spoken word, and after his collaboration with The Big Eyes Family Players on a superb collection of traditional covers in 2009 the presence of so few linear stories in I was a cat from a book is a little disheartening, yet the lone “Spanish Ants” is atmospheric, imaginative and oddly grim.
Breaking away from the melancholic though, the best of the bunch is the little beast of a duet “Just as Scared”, reuniting James with Jill O’Sullivan, vocalist of the Glasgow based trio Sparrow and the Workshop (both of whom contributed to the Scottish musical project The Fruit Tree Foundation). As a song it feels so familiar I had to ensure it was not a cover, but it delights to the point of wearing down buttons with obligated repeats.
Release: 13th of August 2012, Domino Records